“Muse your museum life” — How I Met JiaJia Fei
February 14, 2020 - All
“My Muse of Museum Life” — How I Met JiaJia Fei
The following is an interview with JiaJia Fei, Director of Digital at the Jewish Museum, New York City.
I met JiaJia on March 14th. But before that, I met her through social media. Every photo she posted was a reflection of her perspective on art, space, and how she saw the world. On March 14th, she showed up with a lemon-yellow shirt, iconic red lip and big smile, stylish as always. She had a crazy schedule that day, with one meeting after another. But she still saved an hour for me to conduct this interview. She even spoke a little Shanghainese, which reminded me of home. I learned that however busy her schedule, JiaJia always makes time to meet with students in order to provide opportunities for emerging professionals to learn about museum careers. She is such a role model, in style and in museums. I want to thank her again for accepting my request to interview her about the Jewish Museum and her professional life.
The interview mainly focuses on the digital strategy at the Jewish Museum. JiaJia talked about the current digital strategy, content strategy, social media, and her thinking about technology adoption in the museum.
- Overall Digital Strategy of the Jewish Museum
Q: What is the concept of “less is more” at the Jewish Museum?
Keyword: Less is more, social media, digital ecosystem
A: I wrote the article that you referencing when I first arrived to the Jewish Museum, now over three years ago. Upon my arrival, I discovered a host of inactive social media sites, dozens of microsites that lay dormant, and mobile apps for temporary exhibitions that were never updated. At the time, many departments conceived that to be active on social media, they had to start their own accounts. This decentralized strategy was followed by little to no content strategy. So I went in, cleaned up and deleted all of our unused platforms to streamline our efforts and focus on just a few. We are now primarily only active now on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram; instead of having dozens of pages out there that were not being managed properly. This entire effort was about creating a sustainable system that worked for the entire digital ecosystem.
Q: What is the digital strategy in the Jewish Museum? What are the objectives?
A: We use technology at the Jewish Museum to solve problems and further the mission of the institution. We support our exhibitions, our collection, and telling the story of the museum and the artists and works of art we display for the public. We support and promote our programs to generate attendance. We also exist to be the technology experts that can recommend solutions that can make everyone’s work perform better, essentially operating as an in-house digital agency within an institution. Everything we do furthers our overall goals as a museum.
Q: Have your visualized in 5 years what the museum digital strategy will be like…?
Keyword: Data capture, CRM, VR
A: I can’t predict the future, but generally I would encourage museums to be smarter about the technology you don’t see, like data. Right now at the Jewish Museum, we are investing in efforts that can better collect and aggregate data from our customers, including the implementation of a CRM (customer relationship management system) that captures data from our visitors, our ticket buyers, our members, and eventually people who buy things in the shop. All of this data will live in a single system so that we can better message and communicate to our constituents about what’s happening at the museum, tailored to their interests. Data is the oil of the twenty-first century, and the more data you capture, the more effective you will be in growing your business.
In terms of digital interfaces, I only advocate for using in-gallery technology like VR and AR for specific use cases in which technology can be used as a design solution to solve a problem. For an architecture exhibition at the Jewish Museum, a VR component enabled visitors to experience the interiors of a house designed by Pierre Chareau, because we couldn’t replicate an entire building within the museum exhibition. But we could translate that experience through virtual reality. As a museum, we are not really in the business of using technology for the sake of technology or to create a shiny object. We want to be able to use technology to solve problems.
Q: Why did you choose not to make the app in the Jewish museum?
Keyword: Mobile platform, app-like platform, audio
A: About 5 or 6 years ago, every museum had an app. Over time, this phenomenon became a huge barrier for visitors, who had to download an app for every museum they visited, even if they were only there once. If the primary objective is to engage visitors with audio content, is there a way of doing it without an app? We are in the process of developing an app-like platform that is completely web-based. Instead of a native app that must be downloaded to your phone, our web app is built as a single page application that anyone can use on their mobile browser, on their own devices. Today 91% of visitors bring their own smartphones to the Jewish Museum. With this new audio tour platform, our tours can be also accessed from home.
Q: Who are the target audience?
Keyword: local, Jewish culture, specific exhibitions
A: Our core audience is local; they live in the neighborhood and generally skew older compared to other museum audiences in New York City such as the Guggenheim where I used to work, with 70% international tourists. Our visitors come to the museum to learn about Jewish culture or they are very interested in a specific exhibition. Every exhibition attracts a different niche audience. On view now, we have a contemporary art exhibition on the singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, which will bring in a younger audience interested in his music. Our more traditional member consistently shows up for Marc Chagall or Modigliani. Every exhibition comes with its own strategy combining advertising, PR, and how we target these audiences with our communications online.
Q: What are the main challenges that the Jewish Museum currently encounter?
A: As with all museums as that grow over time, they need more space: physical space to preserve and collect all the artwork acquired, and to present exhibitions that are relevant to a contemporary audience. In the online space, we constantly consider how to make our content, collection, and archive more accessible to the public and offer the ability to share this deep history that may not otherwise be available.
Q: How do you see the future of usage of emerging technologies during the museum visit?
A: The future of museum technology will expand in mobile technology, as its already doing in the rest of the world. But I am wary about trendier emerging technologies, like the blockchain or artificial intelligence. There is still more evaluation that needs to be done, as that technology is so constantly changing. Museums are about looking at and preserving the past, so the adoption of new trends is already a paradox. I believe it’s better to be a late adopter yet decisive on how technology applies within a much longer time frame. Museums are meant to preserve objects forever. And technology, like your iPhone, is only meant to last for a year or so until the next product release.
2. Content Strategy & Storytelling
Q: How does the Jewish Museum tell the stories of the collection?
A: Within our overall content strategy, the tools we have at our disposal are social media, multimedia(video and audio), and digital publishing. In the storytelling process, we also leverage the artist’s own voice by inviting artists in the collection to talk about their own work. These days, it’s tremendously unfair to ask visitors to look at art without interpretation. The art of our time, contemporary art especially, can be abstract and conceptual, and more about the ideas than what’s seen on the surface. So, it’s our job to try to make conceptual art or even something that’s more obscure like a Jewish holiday(for non-Jews) more understandable. We try to use language that’s not alienating. Often the wall text you see in museums isn’t helpful either. So my litmus test is to develop language that’s understandable by someone like my mom, for example, who doesn’t have an art background. We can assume that most of our visitors don’t always have an art background, either. Our approach is to use the tone of taking a friend through a museum and using your personal perspective to make that experience more appealing and accessible. There is always a way of interpreting a work of art in a way that’s engaging and more clear, but necessarily art historical or scholarly.
Q: How do you value the use of video in your digital strategy?
A: Video is typically the most dynamic and engaging medium for us across all platforms. Starting with the video on our website homepage, one of the most public-facing properties of a museum. It’s the first thing you see, much like the façade of our building. It’s important to make sure your first impression is very dynamic and has captured the energy, curiosity, and excitement of visiting the space for the first time in person. Video is often also used to document and promote our exhibitions, with various formats, sizes, and lengths, depending on the channel.
Q: Why did you place a video of your restaurant on your homepage?
A: “Russ & Daughters at the Jewish Museum” is a very big draw for the institution, and important in the overall visitor experience. It’s a legendary restaurant in New York that’s been around for over a hundred years. The original restaurant began as a deli on the Lower East Side founded by Jewish immigrants. The Russ family was also the only business in New York that was run by fourth-generation owners, and the only business at the time with “& Daughters” in the name. The story is very much aligned with the history of the museum, which tells the story of immigrants. Food is such a big part of Jewish culture — as well as understanding any culture.
Q: How do you measure the success of your strategy?
A: We frequently assess the success of our projects by analyzing a variety of metrics. We always look at how many people are using our digital platforms, as well as engagement on them. We also look at qualitative results, such as comments and feedback from visitors. All of that in combination informs our strategy to make iterative improvements.
Q: How do you evaluate the social media strategy of taking photos to attract more people to visit museums now?
A: Instagram has brought attention to museums now in a weird way. The rise of “Instagram Museums”, such as the Museum of Ice Cream or Museum of Pizza (which are not real museums) almost abuses the power of social media to attract audiences addicted to “instagrammable” experiences. Inside (real) museums however, this phenomenon can still be harassed within a space for learning and bringing greater awareness to art.
Q: What is the structure of your digital department? What are the key roles & responsibilities?
A: My lean digital team consists of three people: a Digital Marketing Manager, Digital Asset Manager, and Editorial Associate. I also work with many external collaborators and digital agencies such as web developers and audio/video producers on specific projects. We all participate in analyzing and evaluating our work with varied measurements of success.
BONUS: How do you integrate your stylish ways of working and living with the Jewish Museum?
A: This is a museum that’s about the history of Jewish culture, but also about how we can examine this culture and art for people of all backgrounds through a contemporary lens. Even though we may have objects from ancient times through contemporary art, we are looking at them through a very new perspective, because we live in the year 2019. I think the identity of the Jewish Museum, because it is an identity museum, is very malleable. And our exhibitions try to tell that story. Our job as museum workers is to contextualize these objects and understand what they mean in the context of the issues of today, to help people gain a better understanding of the world they live in.
- Less is More: Why museums don’t have to do it all when it comes to digital, JiaJia Fei, https://blog.prototypr.io/digital-with-a-lean-team-a4797f258148
- Art in the Age of Instagram, Jia Jia Fei, TEDxMarthasVineyard, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DLNFDQt8Pc
3. JiaJia’s website, https://www.jiajiafei.net/
“Muse your museum life” — How I Met JiaJia Fei was originally published in Museums and Digital Culture – Pratt Institute on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.